best and worst
Note: I usually try to incorporate the other Diaries in this post, but I’m kind of on a tight time crunch and just want to get this out. As always, please read the rest of the Diaries for thoughtful analysis, unique viewpoints, and photoshopped goodness. Me thinks there might be some good stuff after this game.
So, yeah. This is going to be shorter than past editions because, whatever man…
Best: “The Ohio State fans are a special people. Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye”
That quote, uttered by noted Ohio State booster…er objective ESPN color commentator Chris Spielman, perfectly encapsulates how surreal today was for a non-Buckeye. During today’s game, Jim Tressel, noted disciplinarian and legal scholar, was honored along with the rest of his 2002 National Championship team. This, of course, was the team that featured a mercurial but talented freshman RB Maurice Clarett, who led the Buckeyes in rushing that season and also scored the title-winning TD in overtime against Miami. The whole gang was back, to give the OSU faithful one more opportunity to cheer on a myth, a delusion about its history that seems painfully obvious to everyone not wearing crimson and grey.
So between the first and second quarters of the final game the 2012 Buckeyes will play, a premature finale caused by Mr. Tressel’s behavior during his years in Columbus, the fans in attendance gave him a standing ovation, one of the biggest cheers of the day. All the while, the athletics department and the greater school, with nary a hint of irony, trumpeted his return as a conquering hero of sorts. The narrative went, at least in some circles, that most schools would have done the same, that fans love to cheer on winners and that most of those players were completely above board and played fairly, won every game that season, and, let’s be honest, Miami was no saint either. The thinking went that this was a team that the school should be proud of, or at least should be able to recognize publicly.
Now, I’m trying my best to stay off the soapbox, so I’ll keep this brief. Not all schools would be so quick to celebrate past athletic accomplishments tainted by violations. The next Steve Fisher Appreciation Night at Crisler will be the first, and Brian has been very clear about his feelings toward Louis “seriously, he can die in a fire for all I care” Bullock and the rest of that brood.
But more than some relativistic moral high ground that some UM fans want to take with OSU, the fact remains that the Buckeye fanbase IS special. It drove one of its more prominent alums out of the state, put a bounty out on high school kid who dared to change his commitment, and it has trouble with its emotions. It is a fan base seemingly always on the wrong side of razor’s edge that is fandom, crystallized in a ceremony memorializing the man who gave them one tainted undefeated season while sullying the next one as well. O-H-I-O, indeed.
Best: MGoMeltdowns are awesome
So as is the custom around these parts, the traffic to the site after a loss follows the same trajectory as general internet traffic does whenever illicit pictures of some starlet are “leaked” to the the web totally-unexpectedly-but-right-before-my-new-movie-Crushed Blue Velvet Girlfriend 2-is-released. For a graphical representation, here is a screenshot of the site about 4 minutes after the game ended
Click for full size
It will never approach RCMB or anything in the SEC not related to Vandy, but TWO redundant posts sarcastically “thanking” the coaches for losing the game, one out-and-out “Fire Borges” thread and one claiming he merely “sucked”, one thread already set for deletion, and about 1,100 posts in a game thread, 50% of them berating Al Borges and the team for a poor second half, is nothing to sneeze at. Subsequent posts included petitions to fire Al Borges, a couple crying out for sanity, and one inferring a discussion about iCarly and Larry Hagman that felt appropriate for an 8th-grader’s “MySpace” profile. Then Ace showed up with his usual quality summary and solid reasoning, which is like, Booo this man!
So why is this a “Best”? Because this outpouring feels organic and based on real concerns. During the RR era, people used to freak out after wins OR losses, calling for guys’ heads and questioning everyone’s credentials from the water boy on up. It was an anger born from desperation and confusion, watching a once-proud program flail about on the field for 3 hours every Saturday. But with this team, the complaints are natural, as people know what Michigan is and what they aren’t, and the reasons behind those limitations are real. It’s sobering to see the cracks in this team both today and going forward, but at least they aren’t obfuscated by a general malaise.
Worst: The Blame Game
Since time immemorial fans have complained about offensive coordinators at UM; in my lifetime, I don’t remember a single OC who left the program without being singed pretty badly on the way out. DC’s tend to get off cleaner, at least in part because defensive playcalling feels “harder” to dissect than offensive sets. It probably is a combination of the reactive nature of defense versus the active nature of offense, fans being trained to focus more on the ball than anything else on the field, and the reality that, with few exceptions, offensive players are more prominent, their successes and failures more memorable than their defensive counterparts. And as the puppet master, the general leading that side onto the field, the offensive coordinator naturally takes on a prominent, public-facing role that invites criticism.
Al Borges called a good first half of football against OSU and between a predictable (best case) and atrocious (worst case) second half. Of course, he probably doesn’t deserve as much credit as he’ll get for the first half nor as much blame for the cratering in the second half. Denard’s end-of-quarter 67-yard TD run was all about a playmaker taking advantage of poor tackling technique by OSU and making a play with the ball. In the second half, he wasn’t the reason Devin fumbled the ball deep in UM’s territory, nor the line’s continued inability to get any type of push up the middle.
So yes, the offense failed to do much in the second half against an aggressive but beatable defense. And while it did reasonably well in terms of points in the first half, two of those TDs were on plays that benefitted as much from OSU mistakes as UM’s offensive playcalling. I already discussed Denard’s run benefitting from the GERG-approved “bump the runner, but hard” tackling technique. The muffed punt by Brown gave UM great field positioning, and they cashed in after OSU again bailed them out with a roughing the passer penalty on 3rd down. The pass to Roundtree was a decent playcall but morphed from first-down yardage to TD because of a stiff-arm and some blown coverage. At no point today did the offense feel particularly well-tuned, and toward the end the playcalling devolved to a single index card with “throw the ball” scribbled on it with blue crayon.
For better or for worse, this game was a microcosm of what Al Borges brings to UM. As I have said for months, echoing others both here and in the greater blogosphere, he is not the type of OC who is willing/capable of drastically altering his gameplan within a game, and only sparingly between games. It was clear after the first game of the year that he has an offense in mind with the players he has, and outside of massive injuries to key players that won’t change.
He’s Teddy KGB, and his tell was nakedly obvious to everyone who watched this game, and really, the past two seasons. He’ll win his fair share of hands because the cards dealt to him dictate so, but he’s had two seasons to show the UM faithful that he is better than statistics and flops and hasn’t come close to proving otherwise.
One of the chief complaints people had during the Rich Rodriguez era was the blind loyalty he showed to certain members of his staff, often at odds with their performance on the field. The name “Tony Gibson” remains a bad word on certain message boards, and at various times Bruce Tall and Jay Hopson came under fire for their ineffective coaching. Yet despite fielding horrific defenses and offensive units that were “unpredictable” at best for long stretches of his tenure, RR kept these coaches around because they had come up with him and thus deserved his loyalty, like a successful athlete who finances a cadre of family and friends because he had history with them. And that, as much as the recruiting misses, the weak performances in big games, the caustic media environment, and the losing, was the reason he failed at UM.
So when Brady Hoke arrived at UM, after all of the memorable quotes and wins, one message you kept hearing was his loyalty. He loved this program, he loved this school, and he respected the coaches that worked with him. The 11 wins masked some of the issues that became more prominent this year, previously hidden behind unsustainable fumble recovery rates and last-second heroics. The offense has struggled mightily all year, with the line unable to consistently open lanes for running backs, who then seem unable to produce any additional yards beyond those made available by play design and blocking. The passing game has proven more proficient as the season progressed, but that seems to have been due as much due to poor defenses as any growth brought on by better play-calling and maturation. Punt returns remain an issue for special teams, as does blocking on kick-offs, but that may be as easy as adopting a couple different formations and getting someone back there who won’t let the ball bounce 20 yards after it touches the ground.
The defense has been statistically spectacular and functionally solid. Mattison has been able to generate solid play at all three levels despite a dearth of experience and/or talent at those positions, but the secondary remains questionable outside of Kovacs and the line could not hold up as the game progressed, being gashed consistently by Hyde in the 4th quarter. But those feel like correctable issues with recruiting, and the advancements already made for a unit that 2 years ago was one of the worst in the nation provide hope.
I am not advocating wholesale changes of the staff, but it will be a test of Brady Hoke’s loyalty to see what happens after the bowl game. RR seemingly picked loyalty to his coaches over winning*, and it cost him. We’ll see if Hoke believes that these men can fix the problems before them and move on, or if his loyalty to UM leads him to shake up the staff.
*I know this is reductive to an extent, but I honestly believe changes to the staff could have saved him in his second and third years.
Worst: The Wall
This game was like the meanest 13-year-olds you’ll ever meet, because it rudely highlighted the season-long inability of this squad to run the ball with anyone not named Denard. Lewan struggled for swaths of the game, highlighted by Adolphus Washington strip-sacking Gardner on UM’s opening drive. Thomas Rawls had 3 yards on 5 carries, highlighted by 1 and 2-yard runs on first down. On twelve rushes in the second half, UM totaled 23 yards for 1.9 yds/c, and that includes a fumble and two instances where UM got 0 yards on short third- and fourth-down runs. Beyond this game, Fitz had rushing averages of 1.1 (Purdue), 3.4 (Illinois), and 0.9 (Air Force), and failed to break 100 yards all season before his injury, a year after recording 5. With Lewan likely leaving, talented but young recruits on the line probably not quite ready to start, and Denard and his 3 1,000 yard seasons graduating, it remains a mystery how this team will move the ball on the ground at all next year.
It’s been said already, but Denard once again left everyone breathless. People will probably remember the 67-yard TD run, but he also had an amazing 30-yard run on UM’s first drive, and finished with 122 yards on 10 carries. He definitely struggled in the second half with a fumble and less than 10 yards on 4 carries, and there were signs that he might have been injured after that early fumble. Regardless, he scored his 6th career TD against OSU, and showed continued leadership and support for this team in whatever capacity he was asked. And while it does appear that it may take a fresh set of eyes to use him to the best of his abilities, he leaves UM as an all-time great both on and off the field.
Worst: Fun with Flags
Per usual, the Big Ten referees were out in full force, throwing 14 flags for around 130 yards. The customary WTF Call of the Week Award(TM) goes to the atrocious offensive PI on Roy Roundtree that even stopped Chris Spielman, but this game also featured a couple of personal fouls and a couple of missed calls, including the Norfleet facemask penalty on an OSU punt return that even Dennis thought was going to be called given how frequently he kept looking at the ref as he ran off the field. It was a chippy game, but one due less to players making solid, hard-hitting plays as much as stupid block-in-the-back penalties and out-of-bound hits 2-3 yards into the sideline. It felt like a MSU-UM game, and both of these teams should be better than that.
Best: Devin, the Defense, and the Future
Despite his struggles holding onto the ball and that bad interception to effectively end the game, I thought Gardner played reasonably well. He was under near-constant pressure all game (4 sacks), and had no running game to support him in the second half. 11-20 with a TD and an INT are decent numbers in only your 4th game of the season at QB and the first “real” road game (Minny barely counts as a football team given how they ended the season). Roy Roundtree also had a nice finishing game against OSU, highlighted of course by that 75-yard TD, while Gallon continued his sneaky-good season with 67 more yards. Both of these guys came on strong to end the season, and I think Gallon will have a fine senior year.
Now, you’d think after giving up 20 points in the first half the defense would be in for a Worst, but they held tough in the second half despite being on the field seemingly the whole time, only giving up 6 points (3 after a turnover that gave OSU the ball on the UM 10 yard line) and forcing a fumble. The line largely held until the 4th quarter, when Hyde and co. started to gash them inside. Mattison devised a defense that limited Miller to one 42-yard scramble but also sacked him 4 times. Miller had a good day passing the ball, but he noticeably slowed down the second half and, frankly, he remains far less dangerous with his arm than with his legs. It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, and the corners were still unable to stay with OSU’s receivers at times, but it played well enough to win.
Will Campbell finished with 10 tackles, and the LBs all played reasonably well. Frank Clark had a bone-shattering sack on Miller in the first half and recovered a fumble caused by JMFR in the 4th to give the team a chance. The future looks bright for this unit, and it will be interesting to see how they play at the bowl game after a month to prepare and next season firmly in view.
Best: In the Wild
So on Wednesday, I attended the UM-Pitt basketball game at MSG with BronxBlueWife (BBW, for short, though not really in any way), and obviously wanted to support the team and rock the Maize and Blue. But as someone who graduated college about a decade ago, those old Steve & Barry t-shirts are starting to fall apart, and I haven’t been back to replenish the stock recently. But then I remembered that I DID have a shirt with the appropriate color scheme, fit, and yes you know where this is going…
Yes, that’s BronxBlue rocking the smedium t-shirt (stupid dryer). And yes, I am married, gainfully employed, and the owner of an automobile and a 401k. Also, apparently, a 4.2-head and an 8-year-old haircut. But these shirts do exist in the wild and are worn non-ironically. And as you can see, seats were VERY available.
So maybe outside of the bowl game, this will be it for my weekly recaps of games. I’m not knowledgeable enough of a basketball fan to really dissect the game in a meaningful way, and there are so many games that even short recaps would take quite a bit of time. I might knock one out before the conference season starts if anything eventful plays out, and maybe after a marquee game or two. But thanks to everyone who read through my rants and leaving comments. Go Blue!
Quick note – this got a little long. Not sure what got into me. Feel free to stick around.
So you’ve cried over the Haikus, seen the animated gifs, and read the numerous odes to the seniors as they leave UM. And it probably got a little dusty in whatever room you were sitting in when man-hugs were being doled out on the field.
And at the end of the day, UM was victorious on Senior Day, most of the seniors had their moments to shine, and the banner was raised for the last time in 2012.
Best: Those Who Came and Stayed Will Always Be Champions
I know that everyone has talked up last year’s seniors as epitomizing Bo’s “Stay and Be Champions” motto, but I’ve always felt this Senior class has been given a short shrift considering the environment that existed when they decided to come to UM. The 2011 class came to UM with a fair bit of uncertainty, what with a coaching change and a shift in offensive and defensive systems, but they all arrived on campus in a world where UM hadn’t missed a bowl game since Nixon was in office and had only one .500 record over that span. Like everyone, they figured UM would, at worst, suffer through a “down” season of 8 wins before challenging for more titles.
But we all know how that played out. And not only did the team struggle on the field, but off it players questioned Rich Rodriguez’s leadership and allegations of improprieties bubbled up before the season. Their reality was a program coming off the worst season in their history, with an embattled coach and a media ready to burn him at the stake. Few offensive and defensive stars could be found on the roster, highlighted by the fact that UM had two players taken in the 2009 draft and 3 in 2010, with one of them being a punting Space Emperor.
And yet, these kids showed up and played through another bowl-less year. They watched as the vultures started to circle RR and his staff, saw the defense continue to flail even as the offense finally started to come around. They fought to make a bowl game in 2010 even though it probably wasn’t enough to save their coach, and when he was replaced with Brady Hoke seemingly all of them accepted him with open arms, unlike the cooler reception received by RR in 2008. The cries of lost values and playing time were never heard and probably were never uttered; these kids came to play for Michigan and represent the University as best they could. By their words and deeds, they exceeded this bar immeasurably.
Now, I’m probably waxing too poetic about college kids; I’m sure that part of the silence is due to tighter controls inside the Fort, and I’d be foolish to ignore that some kids did transfer away from the school for reasons that probably had to do with playing time and classroom performance. But from Robinson to Kovacs, Roundtree to Campbell, this was a team of star-crossed recruits who signed up for a wounded program and rehabilitated it in 4 short years. They deserved to leave Michigan stadium the way they entered; winners and champions.
Best: The Food Court
Most people don’t realize just ingrained food courts have become to everyday life in America, as the advent of malls and massive shopping centers, increased air travel, and cross-country road trips created a necessity for centralized food stops that were both inexpensive as well as diverse so as to satisfy the disparate palates that frequented them. The classic food court tends to feature a name-brand burger joint like McDonald’s or Burger King, a Chinese food restaurant with a faintly-racist and/or suggestive name like “Fook Hing”, an “authentic” pizza place like Sbarro, an overpriced juice place for the “hippies”, a restaurant featuring the native cuisine of a country you’ve probably run roughshod through in Call of Duty, and a cookie depot for dessert. Of course, over the years these areas have evolved and adapted to different clientele and needs, so now you might find a decent sushi joint, a Kosher deli, or a shrunk-down version of a sit-down restaurant like T.G.I. Fridays or Shenanigans. But regardless of how they are constituted, the food court symbolizes options and a bit of gastronomical sanctuary in times of need.
So what does this have to do with Michigan football, you ask in your inner voice that probably sounds like Fred Savage? One of the memes of the past two years on this site is the Borges-Denard Fusion Cuisine that the offense has been forced to take on given the constraints and abilities of the parties involved. Logic goes that when you have an OC who loves a West Coast-style offense and he inherits a dynamic offensive player who is far better with his feet in the open field than standing tall inside a pocket, you try to meld the best of both to form an unstoppable offensive Frankenstein, but instead churn out an overcooked Turducken. You run the read-option while also trying to establish the run with the Pro set and I-form, you encourage the QB to scramble but also throw inside NFL windows between defenders, and you both fall back on the realization that with few exceptions, your guy is faster, more elusive, and plain “better” than the 20-year-olds trying to tackle him. And this works, most of the time.
The problem with the Cuisine characterization, though, is that it always revolved around a central, core element, one that remains the throughline across every down and dish. With Michigan, it’s always been about Denard Robinson, because since the day he stepped on campus he’s been the best offensive player on the team. During his tenure, his two best teammates on that side of the ball have been a center and a left-tackle, and it hasn’t been close. But “Denard” isn’t an offensive philosophy; it’s a “Break in Cast of Emergency” valve that kept this team afloat during the end of RR’s tenure as well as the beginning of Hoke’s.
A complete offense, one that Al Borges knows how to coach, requires options; he needs to be able to run the ball inside the tackles AND throw downfield, get a consistent push upfront to soften up the defense so that they bite on play-action, and hit the mid-distance passes to TEs as they are trailed by outmanned LBs and undersized safeties. He needs options and variety in order to dictate the flow of the game and adapt to what the defense is doing in response. In other words, he needs to be able to pick sushi one series, then throw our Gyros the next, followed by a Jamba Juice on third down. With Denard, the options always appeared more voluminous on paper than in practice, and it led to sub-optimal results when opposing defenses were able to slow down the preferred playcalls.
With Devin under center, that go-to “Denard” package is gone but it’s replaced with a more complete offense that, for better or for worse, largely relies on the rest of the team performing their duties or else the play is broken. Sure, Devin can still make something out of nothing when needed, but it’s also an offense that works like offenses of old, plus a few wrinkles like the always-effective, sparingly-used Fritz formation (THAT’s how you throw a screen). It grinds teams down through the air and ground, and given the cast of characters out there that is pretty impressive. In short, it’s an offense versus a playset, and while it pains me that Denard had to be injured for this to be occur, I think the offense (and the team) both this year and going forward are better for this maturation. The food court may have lost its signature restaurant, but the whole experience is a bit more filling when you are looking for something different.
Best: Keeping the Fritz running
I’m sure that Brian and others will go into greater detail, but I can’t get over how terrifying the Fritz/Diamond/DC bowel cleanser offense looks in select bursts. Any time that Denard and Gardner ran toward one side of the field, seemingly every Iowa defender followed them. If the two split, the defense looked absolutely lost on which player to cover, or was out of place in the event Denard Just Made A Play.
Going forward, I hope this component of the offense doesn’t disappear. It may mean recruiting another pure athlete like a Denard or Antonio Bass (please ignore the name of the clip) and fitting him in where possible, but guys like Norfleet are probably going to be most effective in running offenses with some misdirection and trickery, and rolling out the formation with players capable of throwing, running, or catching the ball is the type of “out athlete-ing” of opposition schools like UM should be doing.
Worst: Not more Questions?
Of course, I just spent 500 words waxing poetically about the state of the offense, so you’re probably wondering why I’m still bitching about the same unit? Well, on one hand you have them scoring at least 35 points per game since Devin took over, capped by Devin’s scintillating 6 TD performance in about 3 quarters of play. The team ground up the Hawkeyes both on ground and in the air for touchdowns on their first 6 drives of the game, and as ST3 noted, the WRs always had between 1 and eleventy-billion steps on the DBs. It was a dominating performance by a unit that seems to be hitting its stride.
BUT…at the same time, the past three weeks have featured some of the weaker defenses in the conference. Iowa is a solid middle in the country in terms of overall defense, while Minnesota just gave up 38 straight to Nebraska before they called the hogs off and Northwestern is, well, fine. Denard and the rest of the offense looked great against Illinois and Purdue as well, but were definitely stymied by the MSU’s and Notre Dame’s of the world, to say nothing of whatever Alabama did to them. And this has been a problem with Al Borges since he arrived at UM – the offense moves the ball easily against the dregs but grinds against tougher units.
Overall, though, it’s a unit that is definitely trending upwards, but one also buoyed by weaker opposition the past couple of weeks. And with OSU welcoming the Wolverines with a defense ranked below Tulsa, Minnesota, and 5-6 Virginia Tech, they may very well not see an above-average defense until January. So questions remain, but at this point I’m not sure we’ll have answers until 2013.
Best: We Found a Golden Ticket!
At the beginning of the season, the key question surrounding the offense was how the shotgun marriage between Denard (and by extension, the rest of the offensive players) and Al Borges would evolve in the second year. The general sentiment was the whole “square pegs and round holes” arguments you hear whenever teams are not moving the ball as effectively as they could/”should” be doing, with some siding with the pegs and others with the holes. Where you fall in this debate mirrors the arguments that seemingly boiled over every couple of weeks under RR, especially early on – do you expect Borges to alter his offense somewhat to highlight what the offense does best (i.e. Denard-centric), or do you expect him to integrate the current players as best he can into the system he knows? And when it failed, do you blame the carpenter (Borges) or the tools (the players) for the rock fights that ensued.
Borges’s offense demands accurate throws in-between levels, a running game that can find gaps on the ends AND generate holes up the middle so that teams have to respect classic play-action, and, perhaps most importantly, QBs who are smart enough to throw the ball away/take a loss when needed, but also capable of improvising and relying on athleticism when needed. With Jason Campbell in 2004, Borges seemingly met his perfect fit – a guru-approved QB with plus athleticism who struggled at times to put it together but was spectacular when he finally did. Not to mention the fact that he had two NFL first-rounders at the RB position in Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (and a young Kenny Irons, who later was drafted in the 2nd round, was waiting on the bench under the one-year transfer rule). The Brandon Cox years that followed were less forgiving, but Borges was able to rebound at San Diego State with reasonable approximation of his 2004 Auburn team with Lindley and Ronnie Hillman, though Ryan Lindley was clearly not the same overall athlete as Campbell.
With Denard, Borges has the most athletic QB he’s ever had, but unfortunately accuracy hasn’t quite followed. While I am one to believe that part of Denard’s throwing issues are due to poor play-calling, he’s never going to be confused with a Henne or Brady out there, and this offense places more of a premium on hitting guys in stride than in out-running a safety in the open field. And because Denard is far more effective in the shotgun than in pro set formations, it eliminates running plays from Borges’s playbook, as he has shown only a lukewarm acknowledgment of the read-option offense Denard is best suited for.
But with Devin, Borges has that reasonably accurate QB who can look over the entire defense and buy some time with his legs, but who’s first inclination remains to throw the ball. Sure, he’ll run if you give him the lane, but he’s a scrambler more than a runner, and that athleticism is the type Borges seems best suited to harness, not the jitter-bug electricity of #16. So it looks like Al Borges found that last golden ticket, and it was sitting, er, stumbling around at WR all the time.
Worst: Fitz Injury
Up front, I am incredibly squeamish in a very particular way. I don’t mind blood or bruises, but whenever I see a leg twist the way it shouldn’t or an arm twist around more than about 100 degrees, I just imagine the cracking of bone and I lose it. And HD certainly doesn’t help, with its crystal-clear picture and high-quality still frames. This year we already had the horrific Marcus Lattimore injury, and now Fitz has broken any number of bones in his leg in a tackle that didn’t look that bad in real time but looks WAY worse on replay. His season is done, and while it has been a disappointing one for him statistically, he’s been a trooper all year and hopefully he’ll be able to return next year fully healthy.
Best: Greg Mattison, you beautiful bastard
Last week questions returned about this defense’s ability to slow down a dynamic offense like Northwestern, which at least early on found gaps on the edges and missed tackles were happening with regularity. While the team definitely settled down, highlighted by a 3-man front trick play to end the game, the cracks definitely shown through. So did this week smooth over those imperfections? In a sense yes, as UM held Iowa to 7 points until the game was well out of reach, and 0 catches by Iowa WRs. On the other hand, the fact that a team couldn’t connect a pass to a WR during a regulation game says quite a bit about the team’s offense, and Greg Davis’s singular goal to destroy BHGP’s soul.
But at the very least, the defense rebounded after a lackluster performance. Washington and Campbell clogged up the middle, Jake Ryan did Jake Ryan stuff, JRIII gave a great audition for a starting spot in 2013, and Kovacs ended his final home game the only way he could, recording 5 tackles and a clean-up sack to snuff out an Iowa drive. It was a great performance, and a proper send-off for a unit that has surprised everyone all year.
In particular, Will Campbell deserves credit for turning around his career a bit in this, his senior season. After coming to UM as a highly-touted recruit and struggling under GERG and the weight of those lofty rankings for 2 years, he’s made slow strides the past couple of years to being a competent DT in the Big 10, all the while keeping his nose clean and staying out of trouble. In hindsight, too much was probably expected of him coming out of high school, a monster of a child who never had to learn much technique (and certainly didn’t get much of it while in campus early on), but he’s been solid all season and helped to anchor a run defense that continues to shut teams down. I’m not sure if he’ll make it to the NFL, but his swan song has been a highlight for this unit.
Worst: Returning to Glory == 15 years
In light of Notre Dame’s divined return to relevance in college football, you’ve probably heard stories of echoes and Horesmen meeting up with Touchdown Jesus. Well, let it be said that 2012 will be the first time a Notre Dame team has won more than 10 games since 1993, and only the third time they’ve won 10 or more since 1997. Since they bottomed out at 3-9 in 2007, Notre Dame has won no more than 8 games in any season. Since 1997, UM has won 10 or more games 7 times, and were probably one Urban Meyer politicking away from playing for a title in 2006. Teams like Utah, TCU, and Auburn have all had better seasons as well, and while recruiting at Notre Dame has been solid, there is no assurance that this year’s ascension is anything more than a plucky independent team from a non-AQ conference riding some good fortune and a favorable schedule to an undefeated season. I know it’s Notre Dame and we should all be in awe of Brian Kelly turning top-1 recruiting classes into wins, but count my a skeptic on this being a true fortune turn for the Fighting Irish.
Worst: Everyone’s the worst, remix
Currently there are two undefeated BCS teams in the country – Notre Dame and Ohio State. One of them is barred from playing in a bowl game because their former head coach was a creep, and their current athletic director is an idiot. The only thing standing between the other and a Return to Glory(TM) is Lane f’ing Kiffin. Oh yeah, and an Alabama team that should have lost to Johnny Football by 20 but now has the inside track at repeating as champions and giving all college football fans another year of tie-wearing enthusiasts screaming their conference affiliation. I’m Catholic, but if Notre Dame walks out of the Coliseum still unblemished next week, I am going to start stockpiling supplies and building a boat.
And Ohio State was also the beneficiary of the now-weekly poor referee spot. You know, wait, this deserves it’s own section.
Worst: Hey ref, why don’t you bend over and use your good eye
So yeah, on the 3rd down run at the goalline of the Badger’s second-to-last drive of regulation against the Buckeyes, Montee Ball was down inside the 1 yard line. Thanks to ESPN’s super-duper sideline camera, everyone in America could see him and the ball well past the first down marker both digitally as well as on the sideline. Well, everyone except a line judge, who decided Ball and about 1 ton of Wisconsin cheese had moved OSU back 3 inches, bringing up 4th down. So of course, like any logical official the replay booth upstairs called down and said the last spot should be reviewed. ESPN then treated us all to another video clip showing Ball’s arm well beyond the first down marker when his knee hit. Brian Griese even commented that Ball would probably score on the next down and, perhaps, OSU should let him so as to keep more time on the clock.
Well, we all know what happened. The official upstairs confirmed the call on the field and Ball fumbled on the 1 inch line on the next play. Wisconsin ultimately scored to tie the game before losing in OT, but this inability to trust your eyes at least two times is becoming a trend in the Big 10. Last week it was the generous spot for Colter against UM and the PSU being robbed of a TD late in their game against Nebraska. This week’s Oregon-Stanford game also featured some weird spotting on the final Stanford drive of regulation, bringing up the question of why referees even replay ball spots if they almost never overturn them.
I know it’s a “judgment” call, but that’s true for virtually everything else in football and yet you can review many of those plays. In fact, a ball spotting is one of the least-subjective calls you can make; it’s where the ball was located when a knee or forearm touched the ground or a player’s body touched outside the field of play. You can look at a video still, see where the contact happened, then look where the ball is. You even have hash marks as helpful guideposts. The fact that it is 2012 and we are still having games decided by some myopic adherence to “human error” as part of the game is ludicrous for a billion-dollar sport.
Worst: Coaching ‘em Up.
People now equate this term with Mark Dantonio’s “amazing” ability to turn lower-rated recruits into good players, but the original master alchemist of turning 2 *’s into real stars was Kirk Ferentz. Guys like Shonn Greene, Pay Angerer, Captain America, and Amari Spievey went from recruiting also-rans to future NFL draft picks, all the while winning conference titles and bowl games against “superior” teams. And for this, both the myth and Kirk’s pocketbook grew by monstrous proportions.
Of course, the reality behind the narrative is a bit more muddled. Iowa has been sending players to the NFL at a rate that is startling higher than you probably expect; they are currently tied with Florida with the 6th-most players currently in the NFL*, ahead of teams like Alabama, OSU, Michigan, and Notre Dame. Their best players tend to be along the offensive and defensive lines, where good coaching and physical maturation can be the difference between oversized 17-year-olds becoming stars or cautionary tales for television specials about America’s growing obesity and the diseases that afflict them. And those stars, like Adrian Clayborn, Riley Reiff, Chad Greenway, and Bryan Bulaga, were rated pretty highly by recruiting services coming out of high school, and lived up to their billing.
To me, Ferentz is as much Moneyball and a favorable media presence as displaying a true ability to unearth diamonds in the recruiting rough. Norm Parker was a mainstay as DC under Ferentz until this year, and he installed a system that replaced seniors with redshirt juniors like clockwork, mitigating some talent disadvantages with a disciplined, consistent play style taught to kids for 2-3 years before they became starters (a lot like Northwestern at QB, where every year it seemed like a new RS junior QB was ready to take over). And on offense, Ferentz was all about keeping his backs clean behind an offensive line that wouldn’t necessarily blow you off the ball but could wear down the weaker teams in the conference. And when the going got tough, well, this would emerge:
And because of Ferentz’s early success, many people began to conflate his latter seasons with the prior ones into one “winning” tableau that wasn’t particularly true. Case in point, since 2004 Iowa has a record of 54-36; MSU, 53-36; Missouri 63-29. I know his best seasons were in 2002 and 2004, but his best seasons were nearly a decade ago, and he’s been averaging about 8 wins a season since 2002, with the number trending down as we get deeper into Justin Timberlake’s solo career.
My point isn’t to disparage Ferentz or his accomplishments, but to highlight what feels like a trend in the Big 10 going forward; this will be a conference dominated by OSU and UM going forward, and the “middle class” teams like MSU, Iowa, and NW will probably be squeezed out. Whereas years ago Ferentz seemed able to transform hay into gold, it looks now like Iowa is going to fall into that 7-8 wins plateau that usually drives non-Northwestern schools to “look for a change of direction” at the top. But of course, Ferentz has a contract that makes firing him virtually impossible financially at least until the latter part of the decade. So either his recruiting needs to pick up or that old “coaching magic” better return to Iowa City.
* Of course, #8 on this list is California, reminding us all that coaching may be a teeny-bit overrated when talking about certain “underdog” teams.
Best: Bring On Ohio State
Nothing much else to add except bring on the Buckeyes. This will be there season, but it should be Michigan’s as well. And if it plays out the way I think, I might break 5,000 words in my next post.
Due to time constraints the past couple of weeks, I caught only parts of the Purdue and Illinois games. Luckily, what I saw made a post like this unnecessary, unless you think “Best: Everything”, “Best: I’m Kirk Herbstreit and I like to jinx Purdue” and “Worst: Moar Fitz rushing” embodies deeply thoughtful analysis.
Plus, I was kind of saving up for this MSU game. The first two weeks of the B1G season looked like tuneups to start the season, with MSU being the unofficial beginning of “Run for the Roses” in Pasadena, and nothing transpired during those first couple of games to change that opinion, at least in UM’s eyes. MSU, though, stumbled to start the season, and were definitely looking to dig themselves out of a Sparty-inflicted hole that included tough loses to OSU and Iowa. And so a rivalry game + MSU reeling + “William Gholston isn’t a jerk, he’s just misunderstood” = a fertile ground for highlighting the waxing and waning of UM’s first victory in the history of this series.*
* This series having started in 2008, one year after Microsoft Encarta and the Mayan calendar apparently arrived in East Lansing.
UM was only 1-4 against Dantonio heading into this game, and for all of the negative press the guy gets here and across the greater UM blogosphere, he’s turned a mediocre State program into a consistent winner, something it hasn’t been since, I don’t know, the 1950’s. Seriously, check out these season records from 1950 to 2011. People around here complain about UM not making a bowl game for 2 years; MSU had won 10 games only twice in the past 60+ years before Dantonio glared his way onto campus.
And it wasn’t just the losing to MSU that drove people crazy, it was how. Sometimes they won in dramatic fashion in OT after UM made a miraculous comeback; other times it was a dominating performance on the ground. Almost always, though, MSU had the better team AND found a way to confound not only the Michigan players, especially Denard Robinson, but also the coaching staffs. There’s a reason that the game previews for 2010, 2011, and 2012 kept pointing out that MSU was successfully jumping the snap on virtually every play, yet it kept happening. Or how MSU found a way to consistently gash the UM defense for yards on the edges despite everyone knowing that MSU’s gameplan was taken from the 1959 game program.
So beating MSU needed to happen to not only restore order back to the world, but also to validate the notion that the program was back on its way to the relative dominance most people remember from the 90s/00s. The OSU win last year was a nice step in that direction, as was the bowl game, but beating OSU is rarely presumed when the season begins; beating MSU is far more the norm. And while I’m sure many fans are loathe to admit it, this iteration of UM football needed to beat them to dispel the notion that Dantonio was plated in some impenetrable Wolverine armor (a similar feeling seemed to have set in on Notre Dame until this year). He’s been cut by Hoke and Co., and once that happened that tightening you have in your chest when MSU takes the lead late will hopefully disappear.
* I know this is a super-tired reference. The “good job, good effort” kid was the next in line.
I’m sure this is a bit of coach-speak, but it is also something that needed to be said. Since, oh, the Eastern Michigan game, I don’t think most people saw MSU as a legitimate Big 10 championship team. The offense was too crippled by a porous line, poor WRs, and a somewhat-shaky QB to keep pace with teams like Wisconsin, UM, OSU, and Nebraska. The Iowa game cemented their ceiling for the year at 7-8 wins, even with an elite defense.
Outside of the Alabama game, though, UM’s ceiling was never defined. Notre Dame was a tough loss but one that felt more self-inflicted than the team meeting a superior opponent. Purdue and Illinois proved only that UM was probably as good as Louisiana Tech and and Marshall. MSU, frankly, was not going to validate UM’s season, but only give them another breakpoint from which to calibrate their potential.
And that’s what Hoke encapsulates in this statement. He recognizes that MSU is a rival and the game mattered, but this wasn’t the season. Nebraska and OSU will be tougher opponents, and the near-certain B1G title game and (hopefully) the Rose Bowl bid will be far more emblematic of Michigan’s 2012 season. Last year expectations were such than an MSU win would have been one to hang the team’s hat on; this year, they’re another 4-4 team that gave UM their best shot and came up a little short.
Worst: “Rivalry” game?
Listen, I can totally get behind belittling MSU’s fans. I was at school there for 3 years, and I witnessed two riots, one “celebration” of a hockey championship during a season in which tickets to games were very available, and thousands of instances of drunken 40-year-olds hitting on college girls outside of dorms as the men’s belies jiggled under super-tight “Go Green! Go White!” shirts they picked up from the local Quality Dairy. It is a school that prides itself on making boxes*, having “awesome parties with hot chicks!”, and being able to count, and while the people there are not as bad as you think, comparisons between the two schools tend toward the Blue Team.
That said, the oft-repeated refrain from UM faithful that MSU isn’t a “rival” is just silly. Sure, OSU remains UM’s most consistently-excellent foe, and 30 years ago the Notre Dame and Michigan clashes typically featured top-10 programs shooting for a national title. But MSU is the other major program in the state, and really the only one in the footprint that features two public schools that (at least ostensibly) draw from the same high schools and communities (Purdue and Notre Dame and Illinois and Northwestern feature the whole private/public differences and the related non-geographically draws). In my high school class of around 160 kids, we had 3 who went to UM and about 40 who went to MSU. At other schools, the numbers were a bit closer, but the fact remains that if you go to either university, you are more than likely to have spent years of your life cohabitating with peers on the other side.
For Michigan fans, beating MSU feels like it should; despite EVERY MSU student claiming he/she was accepted but declined/never wanted to apply/”totally loved MSU the minute they walked on campus and never thought Ann Arbor was anything special”, you secretly felt most of them wanted to go to UM but couldn’t. It also poked a weird hole in the meta-argument that the “jocks” went to MSU and the “nerds” went to UM (which never made sense since it’s not like either team is comprised of the general student body). For MSU, beating UM was a clear rebuttal to all the crap I spewed above; a tangible instance of MSU beating UM in something that both schools’ fanbases cared about. This wasn’t a “our Particle Physics major is better” or “our mascot is cooler according to Playboy.com”, but a win for MSU and a loss for UM.
The point is that it matters to both sides, and anyone mouthing off about how beating MSU didn’t matter, that they are not UM’s rival, is just displaying his/her naivety and/or unfounded arrogance. And while I definitely see this year being the end of MSU’s “dominant run” in the Big 10, they will remain a key opponent for championship game and bowl bids under Dantonio. MSU ain’t going anywhere, and trying to ignore them or minimize their threat doesn’t impress anyone.
* I know that packaging engineering is more than making boxes, but that ESPN special a couple of games ago didn’t help to dispel that idea.
Worst: Still with the unimaginative offensive schemes?
Al Borges seems like a nice guy, and I definitely see how the offensive skill players he inherited don’t mesh with the play-calling he prefers to call. Denard is great for the offense that RR runs, where his feet lead the way and defenses worry about gap control and QB Oh Noes! for 4 quarters. Under Borges, he’s an oval-ish peg trying to fit into a parallelogram-ish hole. He’s not super-accurate, the WRs he throws to are either too small, too slow, or too inexperienced for complete optimization, and the dominant tailback and massive linemen are either in red shirts or still playing HS. It’s like owning a 3DO in 1994 – it looks really cool on paper, but the controls don’t work the way they should and the pictures on the game boxes always look cooler than the games themselves.
That said, this offensive ineptitude against anyone with a top 50-ish defense needs to end. 2011 Notre Dame and Nebraska are the only decent defenses that Michigan really scored on, and even with those two performances there were a myriad of factors beyond “offensive efficiency” that led to those outbursts. It’s gotten to the point that I’d rather the team spot opponents 10-15 points just to get Borges out his routine and let up on the reins a bit.
Everyone knows about the much-bemoaned I- and screaming “multiple TEs in on the line so we are clearly running”-formations, but it’s also the option runs that are almost never options and a vertical passing game that can charitably be described as “adventurous” at times. It’s a mindset that calls for plays that he knows his team just cannot execute the way he wants, and while I get the argument that he needs to run what he knows, it is infuriating to see this team get stymied in the red zone or go three-and-out repeatedly with offensive play calling that only calls on Denard to run 6 times in the second half before the final drive. The Denard Borges Fusion Cuisine is like a restaurant in an airport – it looks good because you are starving and have a 2-hour layover with the only other options being a Sbarro’s and one of those airport bars where businessmen from Des Moines hit on the “mature” female bartender who also doubles as the short-order cook. Chop the menu in half, sprinkle in a bunch of designed runs and screens to keep Spartan Pride from killing him on gap blitzes, and wait until Shane Morris is a Sophomore.
Best: This is how we do it!
On the other end of the coordinator spectrum stands Greg Mattison, whose work restoring the validity of “Greg” after Mr. Robinson, Mr. Williams (I’m ignoring the superfluous G), Mr. Davis, and Mr. Brady tried their best to ruin it deserves serious nomination come the off-season. In 2010 Michigan was ranked 110th in total defense, above a bunch of directional schools and below such juggernauts as Rice, Duke, and Baylor. Today? They’re 10th. That’s not just impressive, that’s damn near a miracle. Every time a see Jake Ryan burst through the line to snag a QB in the backfield or J.T. Floyd break up another pass attempt, I involuntary pull one of these:
Yes, this is the same video. No, I won’t apologize for my love of mid-90’s R&B. You’re just lucky I couldn’t think of anything catchy/appropriate for Next.
Say what you will about MSU’s offense this year, they still had one of the better RBs in the country in Bell, a competent QB, and the laser-focus to circle the Michigan game on the calendar and pull every goofy play they can out for it. Yet, outside of two drives that netted MSU 170 yards (helped in part by a fake punt that accounted for almost 30 yards), they record 134 yards over 9 more drives and barely broke 300 yards for the game. Bell, who was used as the human battering ram that in years past gashed the Wolverines, had a quiet 68 yards and nothing longer than 8 yards. Maxwell threw a pick and a TD and never looked super-comfortable out there, and his repeated failed attempts to pick on Floyd at the end of the first half should shock anyone who remembers watching this only a couple of years ago.
Michigan won yesterday because the defense is a legitimate threat, and that transformation is due in large part to Greg Robinson (and Brady Hoke) making it so.
(Of course, this raises the questions surrounding why big-time coordinators were apparently “out of budget” under Carr and RR, but that’s for another day. Minnesota, let’s say.)
Best: Poor Sinead O’Connor
Everyone likes to say that Brenda Gibbons’ fondness for brunettes powers his cold-as-ice heart as he kicks yet another game winner. Personally, I think he derives his power from hair follicles in general, their faint aroma wafting by his nostrils as he lines up a half-dozen yards behind the ball. 2 years ago he was 1 for 5 in FGA, with a long of 24. In other words, a shade over an extra point. Two years later, he’s 10 of 12 with a long of 42 and a couple of game winners to boot. Someone needs to be in Columbus at the end of the season with whatever machine they use to fumigate Abercrombie & Fitch with their “cologne” and make sure whatever subconscious memories that are triggered in Gibbons are ready to go.
Worst: Recidivism on the rise in East Lansing
Usually the MSU-UM game coincides with the yearly East Lansing work-release program. I leave it to the reader to
bunch of convicts
to see what I am referring to.
Best: Liveblog Moderators are people too.
A redundant but totally necessary thank you should go out to the posters who moderate these liveblogs. I’ve yet to moderate one, as my proclivity to immediately approve anyone who references TMNT or “No Fear” t-shirt slogans would bog down the proceedings immensely, but watching the feed yesterday made me happy that no matter how many whiny posts go through, there must have been literally millions that didn’t. To imagine the horrors these men and women must endure every Saturday and yet function for the rest of the week is truly shocking, and they have my gratitude. Of course, that and $2.99 would get you a commemorative “I Was There” pin from the 2011 B1G championship game, but at least it’s something.
Note: I take this format directly from Brandon Stroud’s Best and Worst of Raw over at With Leather. I love what he does there, and figured it would be a nice style to recap both the OOC schedule and, going forward, each game in the schedule. As with everything on the Internet, reader beware.
So the past five weeks were interesting. UM currently sits at 2-2, with one blowout loss, one blowout win, and a split in games that could charitably be described as “competitive” and uncharitably described as “Big Tehnnn footbah!” The David Brandon Memorial “Millions of Dollars” bowl was what everyone expected once it transformed from that big travel date in the sky to Guards in The Longest Yard’s fantasy it was in reality. Air Force was the workman-like win that service academies typically extract from good teams, and UMass reminded everyone that we should all be happy that they root for a team with First World Football Problems and not a school whose claim to athletic fame was being the other other school John Calipari screwed over after leaving.
And then there was Notre Dame, which absolutely felt like those times in video game football when the computer says “you are NOT going undefeated this season with Brody Boss as your QB of New Mexico State” and your players do everything short of digitally pooping themselves on the field for 4 quarters. For shorthand purposes, I shall refer to this feeling going forward as pulling a “Rooting for Jimmy Clausen.”
But with Purdue coming up next, I figured it would be worth a brief look back at these first four games and highlight the soul-lifting positives and dong-punching negatives as I saw them.
Best: Yeah real Out-Of-Conference Games!
It is a not-so-dirty secret in Ann Arbor that UM almost always treated the ND game as the SUPER HUGE DEAL! game every season, so they rarely tried to schedule another tough opponent before conference play. Sure, you’d get your Baylor/Virginia/Syracuse/mid-level Pac-10 team here and there, but those blockbuster matchups were simply not that common. Whereas in recent years OSU scheduled USC, Texas, and Miami (YTM [when they were supposed to be good]), and various SEC teams were welcoming unassuming programs to the Thunderdome to be pulverized, UM seemingly built its out-of-conference slate around beating leather-helmet enthusiasts who are tears-of-sadness photogenic and who just like to hang out with the guys, bra.
So when it was announced in 2010 that Team 134 would be traveling to JerryWorld to face the good-but-not-yet-terrifying Alabama Crimson Tide the general consensus was “Good, hopefully Rich Rodriguez will have the team ready” coupled with “finally UM is playing a legit team in the OOC schedule.” That was also a more innocent time, when Greg Robinson was a bit more GERG and less interpretive dance/motivational animal rubbing-er.
|This can never be unseen|
But for once, it felt like UM was trying to maintain at least the notion that it would play anyone anywhere anytime, that it measured itself against the best programs in the country. And sure, it was going to carry with it the big-game taxes and costs to see it live, but finally UM would be part of a marquee non-conference game that didn’t include Tom Hammond receiving Pez every time he mentioned the ghosts of Notre Dame past.
|My Coldwell Banker rep sure seems happy today|
Worst: So THAT’S why people don’t schedule SEC teams
The sense when the game was announced was that there is no way Alabama would be as good as the year before when they won the national title, and the narrative of SEC dominance felt like the unholy lovechild of marketing by ESPN and the Power of Tebow, and not, you know, stone-cold reality. But as the years progressed and Alabama kept schooling fools and Michigan did not, then they switched coaches, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be fun.
Of course, there had been rumblings previously that Alabama might up to something, what with the wings of hospitals being filled with former recruits who didn’t quite pan out or signing 135 (!!) recruits since 2008 even though natural matriculation, the NFL draft, and math made that number still too high to meet the NCAA scholarship regulations. And it wasn’t like Saban was pulling a Houston Nutt and crashing his motorcycle while getting a…er, just grab-bagging kids in droves with no regard for ability or need. He was pulling in 4* and 5* kids, and then putting them on special teams because the 5* kids ahead of them were still producing/not suddenly being deemed unable to play sports again.
Best: Are you not ENTERTAINED!
One of the time-honored traditions for most major-college football teams is to schedule “Baby Seals” to play in home games before the regular conference season begins. The goal is to snag a couple of easy wins, get the starters some game-like practice without injury, and to send the alumni and fans home happy after a nice day game. And heck, maybe it will be a bit entertaining.
So that’s why teams typically schedule these Seal teams, comprised of fervent, KISS Army-like followers of British pop/soul musician Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel, their anthem a throaty “You’re never gonna survive…unless you get a little crazy!” and their uniforms adorned with a vibrant roses on a gravestones…
Wait, that’s not right. Fans of Seal would be more into the other game of football, and anyway their leader seems like he’d rather memorialize the game and not necessarily participate. No, apparently Seal teams are a crack team of Navy special forces (like the varsity of version of the Midshipmen, but with more guns, less hair, and the most OMG Shirtless-ness of the elite military forces).
Okay, wrong again. Apparently Baby Seals are teams that programs schedule because the talent disparity between the two programs is so significant that there is NO WAY that the Seal could EVER beat the BCS squad.
A great example this year was UMass, the past home of 16-year (!!) NBA star Marcus Camby and current home of former UM victory cigar Mike Cox. While UMass had given the Wolverines all they could handle a couple of years ago, it was clear from the first snap of the game that UM was a significantly better team than the Mintemen and that the only issue would be if Denard Robinson scored more points for UMass than they did on offense. It was the type of victory people need to see more often before it becomes routine, even though there is NO REASON why UM fans should ever be worried about losing to them. Right?
Anyway, it was the type of game where offensive players scamper untouched 5-10 yards past the line, where receivers are constantly blanketed and overmatched offensive linemen are being crushed left and right by future NFL DTs and DEs, and a couple of cheap scores shouldn’t cloud the severity of the beating dished out.
Worst: The other foot
Now, you probably thought that last paragraph above was referring to the UMass game, and it was. But I could copy and paste that text, and really the whole last section save for my weird Seal-based non-sequitur, and it would be a 100% recap of watching the Alabama game. UM was Baby Seal’ed as much as any UM team I’ve ever seen, though I’ll admit to being 10 and definitely not into sports when UM played Florida State. The worst game I ever saw UM play in person was against Iowa in 2002 because it wasn’t a fluky game where UM shot itself in the foot as much as Iowa just blew them off the field (check out the drive chart). Maybe Oregon in 2007 was worse, but that team was shell-shocked so it wasn’t surprising that a pumped Ducks team (which definitely stay together when they play together) with tons of talent beat them badly. I’m sure I’m missing an ND game in there somewhere, and Brian seems to have a thing about the 2007 OSU game, and anyone with knowledge before 1995 or so feel free to add in the comments below.
This has to be photoshopped, right?
But this Alabama game is the worst beating I’ve seen UM experience. It wasn’t that Alabama was the better team on the day, or that they played UM so well. I have watched UM enough, especially during the RR years but even during those down Carr and Moeller years, to know that sometimes this team just isn’t as talented as its competition.
This was different, though. In all previous butt-whoopings, UM at least looked like they COULD have beaten the opposition on a different day. But against Alabama, there was no reality, no world in which Michigan could have beaten that Alabama team. And that includes a reality in which both Michigan’s and Alabama’s players are clowns made of candy and Jim Tressel is a Doozer who built Cowboy Stadium with pixie sticks. I try not to use hyperbole very often, but Alabama UMass’d UM more than UM has UMass’d a team in recent memory (okay, maybe not Delaware St., but go with it). It was a sobering sight to see Al Borges look at his play sheet, throw up his hands in disgust, and just run the ball out of the I-form and punt. And it showed that while Brady Hoke is pointing UM in the right direction, maybe college football has morphed so much in the past half-dozen years that anyone who doesn’t recruit 120 kids and pays NFL-like salaries to state employees is going to be some precious sea animal to be mowed down by the couple of teams that are willing to play fast and loose with the spirit of college athletics.
|Couldn’t find an excuse to put this picture in anywhere else – a bear with chainsaws for claws|
Best: USA! USA! USA!
I was going to make this a Worst because I’m never a fan of playing the service academies. First, they are about as true a “student-athlete” as you’ll find in the FBS – they are not that big, they are not that fast, they all love engineering and science and stuff, and they are definitely Going Pro in Something Other Than Sports. So beating them feels like the varsity team beating a really motivated and disciplined intramural team, if said intramural team was full of smart guys and not brosephs who wear their Oak Red Division II championship t-shirt every time they get their swell on.
Second, they are actually pretty good at football, or at least are resourceful and schematically-unique enough that they can catch even good teams off guard. At least one of them is always a top-5/10 outfit running the ball, they almost never take bad penalties, and their defenses are those annoying blitz-heavy-at-weird-angles schemes that can rattle an offense that knows it probably won’t be getting the ball that often. It’s actually fun to watch them play football except when it is against your team and they are driving for a game-tying score despite having 5’ 9” WRs and linemen significantly smaller than Billy Bob from Varsity Blues.
Finally, it just feels Notre Dame-y to play them, in the sense that certain teams derive some weird morality boost by playing a service academy. To listen to some people describe these matchups, playing Army or Air Force is to Support the Troops® and show why America is great, whereas it always struck me as an easy win on the schedule. It’s not like dropping 50 on them in Dublin was going to make them feel any better as they hunted for Sean Connery or defended Andre Braugher (and yes, I need to stop watching so much TV). It’s equivalent to acting as if Vanderbilt, Northwestern, or Stanford’s football teams are full of geniuses who are also good at football, instead of academically rigorous schools who field football teams that may have a couple of smart guys sprinkled in with guys who are largely indistinguishable from the rest of college sports.
So there are a bunch of reasons why playing service academies is a dumb idea…
EXCEPT I just can’t get over how much fun it is to see them on the field and see the respect fans everywhere give them. I’m no Mitch Albom or Gregg Easterbook, but I love seeing names like “Service” and “Freedom” on the back of jerseys, see the cadets in the crowd jump up and down in perfect unison, and remind myself that football is still pretty much a game and even though it drives me crazy when Al Borges doesn’t throw a f’ing LAZER screen against Alabama nobody is going to permanently scarred as a result. I’m not going to go watch the Columbia University Lions play the Princeton Tigers every weekend (though good seats were DEFINITELY available), but sometimes it is refreshing to watch a mid-sized David battle a slightly-larger Goliath for an afternoon, provided that Goliath doesn’t, you know, lose.
Worst: I was into Groundhog Day back when it was just looking at a land-beaver getting out of a hole.
It has been my goal on this site to never disparage a college kid when he does something bad on the football field. I hate yelling at 22-year-old kids for screwing up in a position where I would turtle as soon as the ball was hiked. So I’m not going to call out Denard for the 5 turnovers against Notre Dame because there are various reasons why the ball was turned over, and not all of them are on his shoulders.
That said, after he threw interceptions on consecutive passes in the second quarter against Notre Dame AND gained a first down running the ball on three straight plays, you just knew that as soon as he rolled out to throw the ball bad things were going to happen. I love the chutzpah Denard has shown over the years, the fearlessness and supreme confidence in his abilities that helped him pull wins out of his butt and give the team hope after going 3-9. But at the same time, he has the problem every other college QB has – he has his safety valves, his “break on pressure” switches that lead him to lock onto Tacopants 50 yards down the field and just say
Or find the slot receiver triple covered and try to phase the ball through two of them into his arms. And yeah, UM QBs have been doing that since the beginning of time (John Navarre practically tethered his large intestine to Marquise Walker when he was being pressured), but this team doesn’t have the elite-type WRs those guys had, so they don’t usually get separation and can’t jump over the coverage and save him unless they are Baby Megatron.
Now, I don’t think you put any kid in that position if you can help it. The coaches should have had him keep running the ball until Notre Dame found a way to stop it. Then give the ball to Fitz, or a short dump-off to Funchess, or anything else that has a tiny chance of being turned over. Everyone knew he was a little rattled and that is fine; give him a series to get his feet under him again even if it ends with a punt. The defense was keeping the game close and Tommy Rees was under center on the other side of the field. Trust me – the game wasn’t over.
And I guess that will be Denard’s legacy at UM – a preposterously athletic kid who tried to play QB in an offense that is just too risky for some people’s tastes, who put up numbers but also seemingly came up a couple short when he needed them most. Even if the team wins out, he’ll be defeated against Penn St. and Wisconsin for his career, 1-3 versus MSU, and 2-2 against an OSU team that is itself in transition. He’ll have the career yardage mark but also the career interception record; the most rushing yards but also a disturbing number of fumbles. He’ll be a memorable figure in UM history, the epitome of the good and bad that occurred when UM tried something new for the first time in most of our lifetimes.
Barring Al Borges and Brady Hoke getting seduced by the siren song of Dana Holgorsen, the next 6.02X10^23 QBs are going to be majestic rocket-armed missile launchers who look down a crashing DE and thread three needles to get the ball to a 6’5” TE donkey-busting a DB down the sideline. And they’ll make all the correct reads (even when they don’t) and have just enough wiggle in the pocket to get time in the pocket (except when they can’t). And that will be glorious, if a bit sad. I happen to like little guys who make me smile every time they touch the ball.
My favorite dumb line (outside of, you know, this one) from the best dumb movie about football, perfectly embodies what the rest of the year holds for this team. At 2-2, nobody is thinking of a backdoor shot at some national title chase, nor were those wins or Notre Dame loss filled with any defining thru-line regarding how this team will play going forward (except, maybe, that the defense will be better than expected). But with 8 games to go in the conference slate, this squad can still put together a pretty nice season. Sure, they’ve got to beat OSU in the Horseshoe and Nebraska at the Astrodome North, and MSU looks like they will cobble together a gameplan wherein Bell runs the ball 90 times and they win by 3, but nobody is going to run away with this conference. Robinson may have games like 2012 Notre Dame at times, but he also has games like 2011 Notre Dame, 2010 Notre Dame, and 2011 Ohio State where he is the most dynamic player in the country. So starting with Purdue on Saturday, if this team plays like it is capable of, it has a chance at going from 3-9 to a conference championship in 4 years. That' isn’t just amazing, that’s heroic.
(Jebus, I need to update my Netflix queue…)
So provided this doesn’t stamp my ticket to Bolivia, I’ll be back with another installment after the Purdue game.